Filmmaker pays tribute to his family with feature debut ‘iMordecai’ |

Filmmaker pays tribute to his family with feature debut ‘iMordecai’

Comedy-drama developed out of a sad time of his life

For information about “iMordecai,” visit
Academy Award-nominee Judd Hirsch plays the title role in Marvin Samel’s “iMordicai.” The film, which was spotlighted during a special independent screening during the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals, is a comedy-drama based on true events experiences by Samel’s family.
Courtesy of MPRM Communications

Marvin Samel’s heartwarming comedy-drama “iMordecai” is a comedy-drama that focuses on his family.

The film, which was spotlighted during a special independent screening at Treasure Mountain Inn during the film festival week, is named after Samel’s father, Mordecai, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Boca Raton, Florida.

The filmmaker, who made his living as a cigar maker, began jotting down vignettes about his family after his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease eight years ago.

“I had no plans to become a filmmaker,” Samel said. “I was basically in pain after I sold my cigar company, and my wife had two daughters. What was supposed to be the happiest days of our lives was shattered with my mother’s diagnosis. So to cope, I started writing stories that would become ‘iMordecai.’”

The film, which stars Academy Award-nominee Judd Hirsch as Mordecai, Emmy Award-winner Carol Kane as his wife Fela, and Academy Award-nominated short filmmaker Sean Astin as Marvin, is deliberately filmed like a grown-up version of the teen-centered, coming-of-age films of the 1980s and 1990s, according to Samel.

“I was raised on those films, and I felt, tonally, that was the kind of movie I wanted to somewhat portray,” he said.

‘iMordecai” takes 10 years of events and compresses them into a six-week period, Samel said.

“All of the vignettes, the plumber and painter and Mordecai jackhammering the bathtub all happened over a number of years,” he said with a laugh. “And the Marvin of the film is not the Marvin of 2015 when some of these scenes actually took place. He’s an earlier version of him where he struggles to keep his company afloat.”

Still, significant events, such as Samel’s parents mortgaging their home to help their son keep his cigar business intact, did happen.

“They saved us on more than one occasion, as Mordecai never ceases to remind me,” he said with a laugh.

Samel admits he was the biggest question mark of the project when it began its 23-day shoot.

“The closest I have ever gotten to Hollywood in my life was the block I lived on West 88th between Columbus and Central Park West, where they filmed a lot of the outdoor scenes for “Sex in the City,’” he said. “I had no experience as a filmmaker, and the first time I ever stepped onto a film set was to direct a Jeep scene in my film. And it was a disaster from a production standpoint.”

For starters, there was a mixup between the locations department and police, Samel said. 

“I was told we had four hours to put the scene together, but we were really given 30 minutes,” he said. “It was a very complicated scene that had six different set ups, and we were working with only one camera.”

It was also a hot and humid day on location, Samel said.

“It was pouring rain while we were shooting, and the air conditioning wasn’t working in the Jeep, so the window kept fogging up,” he said. “Judd had to keep wiping down the windows, and while he was doing that, he knocked the front rearview mirror off. So, there are shots in the film that have the mirror and others that don’t.”

Then there was an incident where Hirsch snapped at Samel.

“I asked him for a little more reaction when he’s talking with Sean, and he said, “What the hell are you talking about? The camera is on Sean,’” Samel said with a laugh. “That was my introduction to directing a film.”

First time filmmaker Marvin Samel began writing family-oriented vignettes more than eight years ago as a way to cope with his mother Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. Those stories would eventually become the scenes in his film “iMordecai”
Courtesy of MPRM Communications

Still, the cast did show a lot of patience with Samel throughout principal photography, which had 874 shots on the list.

“Sean Astin was a tremendous help,” Samel said. “He pulled me aside at the end of each day and gave me some brotherly love and advice. So, by the time day 7 or 8 came around, I had started trusting all the years of preparation that I had done for this movie.”

The preparation included researching lessons on that were taught by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, Judd Apatow and Ron Howard.

“I took all the workbooks and studied how I could take my vision and bring it to life,” Samel said.

Another big help was cinematographer Will Turner.

“Will agreed to spend more time with me,” Samel said. “We were originally slated for three weeks of preproduction, but I needed more to prepare. And he gave me six weeks, where we worked seven days a week. I’m talking sometimes 18-hour days.”

Turner would accompany Samel and the scouting crew to sites and help decide how to shoot the scenes at each location best..

“He would lay everything out, but as Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’ and I got punched pretty hard at times,” Samel said.

In addition to live action, “iMordecai” also uses animation to tell the stories of other significant and emotional events, Samel said.

In fact, the first scene is an animated sequence relaying Mordecai’s birth in Poland.

“We always knew at least one of the scenes would be animated, but I had no intention to have the opening of the film completed in animation,” Samel said. “We actually had plans to go to my father’s birth town, where we would rent World War II tanks.”

Those plans changed with the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, and in July, the film’s producer, Dahlia Heyman, convinced Samel that using animation would be a powerful way to convey this and other intense sequences of Mordecai’s life.

“I didn’t make this film for commercial purposes,” the filmmaker said. “I made it to honor my parents and give my descendants a lasting memory of my family. But my biggest fear was that my father, after seeing the film’s opening, would turn to me and say, ‘You made a cartoon of my life?’ But in the end, both necessity and art came together in a happy precipice.”

Directing the animated sequences was another challenge for first-time filmmaker Samel.

“I had to trust my animation team, Chaos Emporium Inc., and I had to trust that my vision would end up on the screen,” he said.

So he brought in Josh Tabak, who had been the lead animator on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” as a consultant.

“Josh helped me find the vernacular of animation speak,” Samel said. “In order to direct 12-plus frames of high-concept animation, the animation team and I had to get on the same page quickly. And I had never even constructed stick figures before.”

After completing these animated storylines, Samel realized how much they would add to his film.

“I ended up realizing had we filmed all these sequences in live animation, it would have been too difficult for audiences to come back from some of the more harrowing sequences that we see,” he said.

Working on the film opened Samel’s eyes to how his parents’ experiences shaped the way they lived their lives and their parenting skills.

“This film really embodies what one of our greatest poets meant when he said, ‘We honor our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship,’” Samel said. “(It continues with) ‘‘I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together.’”

The phrase was written by Bruce Springsteen in his 2016 autobiography, “Born to Run,” Samel said. 

“Bruce wrote this at a time when he was coming to terms with his father, who he did not get along with for years,” he said. “For my father and I, that connection also eluded us. We never had the play-ball kind of relationship.”

A big part of the disconnect was how Samel’s father was raised.

“He never had parents, because he was raised in an orphanage,” Samel said. “And while both he and my mom were in actuality, loving parents, as refugees from World War II, they didn’t have the modern skills of parenting.”

Samel, who mostly self financed and is self-distributing the film, began to understand more about his parents’ idiosyncrasies that resulted from surviving the Holocaust as he dived deeper into the project.

“Shared suffering basically unified my mother and father, and my father asked my mother to marry her the day he met her,” Samel said. “He said, ‘I speak five languages, and you speak the same languages. I’m a survivor and you’re a survivor. What more do we need to know? Let’s get married.’”

Samel was in his 40s when he began writing the film’s script.

“My mother is no longer with us, but my father is still going strong at almost 87,” he said. “As you get older, you realize how short time is.”

Throughout the past few weeks, Samel has taken the film on tour with members of the cast and crew.

“I discuss intimately with the audience how this cigar maker became a filmmaker and why I did this,” he said. “This could have gone sideways so many times, but I’m thankful for such an incredible cast and team who supported my vision. In the end, I tried to give you as true of a glimpse inside the Samel family as I could. Maybe you’ll see some of your family.” 

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